Decency in Fiction

Here is a post by James Scott Bell at Kill Zone Blog: The Power of Decency in Fiction

If you’ve been in my workshops or read a few of my writing books, you know about the “pet the dog” beat. The name is not original with me, but comes from the old Hollywood screenwriters. Blake Snyder changed it to “save the cat.” So pet lover-writers can choose their preferred metaphor.

I have refined the concept to make it something more specific than merely doing something nice for someone. In my view, the best pet-the-dog moments are those where the protagonist helps someone weaker or more vulnerable than himself, and by doing so places himself in further jeopardy. Thus, it falls naturally into Act 2, usually on either side of the midpoint.

I think of … Richard Kimble in the movie The Fugitive, saving a little boy’s life in the hospital emergency ward (and having his cover blown as a result).

A “pet the dog” moment! What a great term. Although Kimble risking his cover to intervene and re-write the boy’s medical orders was so much bigger than “petting a dog,” of course. After these recent hurricanes, I think a better phrase would be “rescue the dog” moments.

Lots more about the original Fugitive TV show at the link — I’ve never watched it, but it does sound like something I’d enjoy. Bell concludes:

I say this pet-the-dog motif is the secret of the show’s popularity. … Why do we respond so strongly to this motif? It’s not hard to understand. In this life, which Hobbes described as “nasty, brutish, and short,” we long for decency, thirst for kindness, are grateful for compassion. Seeing it manifested in a lead character draws us to him, creates the bond that is one of the big secrets of successful fiction.

I agree, except that I think the desire to be kind can be and should be at least as important as the desire to have other people be kind to us.

I’m currently reading the Danny North series by Orson Scott Card, which is an interesting story to look at in this connection. Twice now one or another supporting character has referred to or thought about Danny as a particularly good person, and this seems to be important in various ways. But . . . I’m not really seeing it. I think there are not enough overt “pet the dog” moments to make up for what appears to be quite ordinary non-goodness. The books are kind of fun and intellectually engaging, but I can’t say that Danny is a very appealing protagonist. Nor are any of the secondary characters particularly appealing. This is a personal assessment, of course; your mileage may vary. Still.

Comparing Danny North to, say, Cassandra or Kaoren Ruel of The Touchstone Trilogy … there’s really just no comparison in terms of moral character. They’re hardly even in the same moral universe. And I’m with Bell: I think that matters A LOT when it comes to readership appeal and successfully deepening the emotional involvement of (many) readers. For me, the Danny North books will be a read-and-give-away series, whereas you could not pry the Touchstone series out of my fingers with a crowbar.

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4 thoughts on “Decency in Fiction”

  1. Have you seen Marvel’s Dr. Strange? It opens with a save the dog moment. And a deleted scene had a literal help the dog bit. I’m sure that helps make Steven Strange worth watching a movie about as he spends quite a bit of time as an arrogant, desperate guy.

    Now same movie, supposedly ancient and wise person – we’ve christened the character The Annoying One. Never has such a moment. Yet the way the movie handles the character we’re supposed to respect and care for her. Doesn’t work.

    Gandalf has several. Saruman has none. Heck even Elrond sort of does with his helpfulness to dwarves in Hobbit and taking in Bilbo in LOTR. Book Boromir doesn’t really get any, which is the one place the Jackson movie really did better. Boromir almost got a couple, but they are also purely practical things like the firewood, and noticing the hobbits are going to die in the storm.

  2. I haven’t, but yes, for an intrinsically arrogant guy, a save-the-dog moment can do a lot to encourage reader — or viewer — sympathy.

  3. Yes. The protagonist can be — should be — complex and interesting and drawn with some shades of gray . . . but if there is a dog, the protagonist should save it (whatever that actually comprises in the story), or he or she isn’t a suitable protagonist for noblebright. I think the tendency to save the dog should be widespread among secondary characters as well.

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